'How to Invent Everything' lays out the basics of human knowledge

Stranded in a past century? Not to worry! Here's the hilarious book that will tell you everything you need to know.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler By Ryan North Riverhead Books 464 pp.

So you've decided to do some recreational time travel – good for you! Utilizing the FC3000 personal time-travel module manufactured by Chronotix Solutions, you'll have the whole breadth of human history at your disposal. You can have a long discussion with Socrates in the shadow of the Acropolis, perhaps talk military strategy with Alexander the Great, or explore theories of form and beauty with Leonardo da Vinci over a sumptuous meal in Renaissance Florence. Want to hear anecdotes about making it as a female playwright in the man's world of 17th-century theater? Pull up a chair and converse with Aphra Behn! First-hand accounts of the gore of Antietam? Chat with Robert E. Lee! Just imagine the possibilities!

One possibility you're encouraged not to imagine is actually the subject of Ryan North's hilarious and endlessly fascinating new book How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, and that possibility is: What if your FC3000 breaks down along the way and you lose your return ticket to the present day? “Unstable Einstein-Rosenberg bridges constructed across disparate spatial/temporal reference frames” can be tricky things, after all.

First, you should know that although Chronotix Solutions considers any and all such mishaps to be entirely your fault, they're not without sympathy (“If you would like to make peace with the idea that you will never return to your friends and family, please do so now”). But the second and more pressing question is: How much of what you know right now will help you survive back then?

It's been a favorite question of science fiction writers for nearly a century, perhaps most famously with L. Sprague deCamp's 1939 novel "Lest Darkness Fall," in which an American archeologist named Martin Padway finds himself transported to sixth-century Italy and comes to believe his future-born knowledge – on subjects ranging from military technology to distilling brandy – might just be sufficient to change history and prevent the so-called Dark Ages from happening. It served the story's purposes for Padway to be an omni-competent living database, but would that be true for you? Do you know how an electrical generator works, or how to build one? How an airplane achieves takeoff? Even the first thing about the circuitry that runs your computer? How about how to rotate crops, or even how to distill water? Handy at building a basic kiln? Have even a clue about the construction of the all-important steam engine?

Suddenly, the past doesn't look quite so idyllic, but "How to Invent Everything" is here to help. In these well-illustrated pages, North lays out the basics of … well, the basics. Here you'll learn – or be reminded of – the fundamentals of agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, metalworking, navigation, and animal domestication (“If you're in the Americas between 10,000 BCE and 1492 CE, while there are no horsies or camels, there are llamas and alpacas in South America. In North America there are bison, but they can't be domesticated, and good luck trying to get one to pull a plow”).You'll be briefed on the laws of perspective, the germ theory of disease, the Heimlich maneuver, and how to read music (all work and no play, right?). You'll learn the components of chemical combinations that are potentially useful – and potentially harmful (the warning given for manufacturing nitrous oxide – laughing gas – is simple: “There are so many ways this could go wrong. You are literally heating an explosive”).

Some of the advice dispensed here will be familiar to some readers – avid hikers, for instance, will already know the general guidelines about safe and unsafe wild plant consumption (bright colors mean: “I'm easily seen, which means I'm not worried about predators, which means if you eat me you're probably going to have a bad time”), and anyone trained in first aid will know some of the basics of trauma, shock, and broken bones.

But some of the tips in "How to Invent Everything" will be known to some, it's unlikely that all will be known to all; real life tends not to produce all that many Martin Padways. For the vast general population that might decide to trust their lives to the FC3000, this book is potentially invaluable (and mighty entertaining) one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about life, the universe, and the fly wheel.

“You are about to enter a world of untold wonder and potential,” such stranded time-travelers are told in a concluding note of somewhat forced optimism. “and you will face it with a gift the rest of humanity never had: foresight … Go get 'em, tiger.”


Or you could skip the whole time-travel thing and just go to the Catskills for a week.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.